I just finished reading Maggie O'Farrell's The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox last night, an absorbing novel that Ron Charles, in his insightful Washington Post review, compares to Jean Rhys' Wide Sargasso Sea and Kate Chopin's The Awakening. Not bad company.
Here's an excerpt. O'Farrell's novel--her fourth-- is in flap-copy speak, a "gothic, intricate tale of family secrets and lost lives." At its heart, the novel is an indictment of how society (in this case British) used psychiatry to control women--eccentric, nonconforming, intelligent women. (One of the author's listed sources: The Female Malady: Women, Madness and English Culture, 1830-1980, by Elaine Showalter.)
The structure of the novel intrigued me. There are no chapters! The tale shifts between three characters--third POV: Iris, the contemporary woman, her great-aunt Esme, and Kitty, her grandmother, who suffers from dementia. Kitty's recollections are fractured, beginning and ending mid-sentence-- but this sort of stream of consciousness works as her memories come and go. Esme's sections grapple with the present (as she leaves the institution where she has lived most of her life and enters the jangling modern world. She marvels at seeing an airplane.) Esme is also haunted by the past, as she wrestles with the wrenching, painful memories of being committed at sixteen. Again, I agree with Ron Charles:
The structure of the novel is a challenge, more like a dare, the kind of purposefully scrambled puzzle that makes you wonder if it's all just too much work to figure out who's talking and when this happened and what that means. But forge on: O'Farrell isn't merely showing off; she's forcing us to participate in a family's ghastly conspiracy of forgetting.